1. Life & Culture

'Amazing Race' contestant from St. Petersburg comes up short

From left, Amazing Race contestants Kurt Belcher (in hat), Hayley Keel, Libby Simpson (whose face is covered), C.J. Harris and Bergen Olson catch a viewing party Friday in St. Petersburg.
From left, Amazing Race contestants Kurt Belcher (in hat), Hayley Keel, Libby Simpson (whose face is covered), C.J. Harris and Bergen Olson catch a viewing party Friday in St. Petersburg.
Published May 16, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — On a dozen flat-screen TVs on the Ferg's Sports Bar patio, an entire crowd wondered how it all would shake out Friday night.

Sure, the Tampa Bay Rays were on the road against the Minnesota Twins, but at the bar, just walking distance from Tropicana Field, eyes were glued to CBS' The Amazing Race 26.

They wanted to see whether St. Petersburg nurse Hayley Keel and Blair Townsend, a doctor from North Florida, came out winners in the final hour with $1 million.

They didn't. Keel and Townsend finished third. Parts of the crowd shouted encouragement at Keel, who was hosting a watch party with fellow castmates Jeffrey Weldon, Bergen Olson, Kurt Jodan Belcher, C.J. Harris and Lebya Simpson.

Others cheered for the winners, #TeamSoCal Tyler Adams and Laura Pierson.

As the show aired, Keel's trademark nagging of her partner grated on Ferg's patrons.

"I'd like to see how they would react in that situation," Keel said. "Anyone can sit on their couch and think they would be different, but until you're in that situation you don't know."

She had her supporters, though. Co-workers made #TeamHayley T-shirts.

"She's been really busy since the show finished, but she's completely the same," said Stefanie Tucker, 38, a fellow nurse at All Children's Hospital. "We're all really proud of her."

Friends have been watching the show on Friday night at Ferg's for months, sometimes drawing up to 50 people. This Friday night, the numbers were in the hundreds and many lined up to take pictures with the other contestants in the building.

Townsend had a work conference in New Orleans and planned to watch with castmate Jonathan Knight after a New Kids on the Block concert, Keel said.

Constant arguments slowed #RXForLove, Keel and Townsend's team, but never put them out of the race.

Keel, 28, moved to St. Petersburg more than 18 months ago from her native Ohio to be with a boyfriend, whom she broke up with six months after relocating. The weather's a little better than in her hometown of Niles, Ohio, so she stuck around and kept her job as a pediatric registered nurse in the emergency room at All Children's.

Keel auditioned for The Amazing Race with a male friend, but got a call instead asking her to be a part of Season 26's blind dating experiment. Producers paired her with Townsend, a U.S. Navy physician living on Amelia Island.

Keel was married from May 2011 until her divorce was ordered in September 2014. She said the extreme blind date with Townsend may have been affected by the fact that this would be her first time really dating in her adult life.

Initially, Keel and Townsend looked like a good match. She commented to the camera that he "was exactly her type" on the first episode.

As the challenges started to roll in, however, it became clear that differing styles of communication were going to make success difficult, and a love connection near impossible.

Keel complained in challenge after challenge that Townsend didn't listen to her, and even after a mistake, she'd hold a grudge and yell at him.

"One of Hayley's strong points is her inside voice," Townsend joked to the camera in one episode.

The fights earned them a reputation with other teams, who dubbed them the Bickersons. Fans of the show thought Keel was whiny.

They got prizes to show for their trouble: a Fit Bit Kit that includes an electronic activity tracker, a cellphone, a laptop, home exercise equipment or a one-year gym membership; a trip for two to India; and trip for two to Cape Town, South Africa.

She and Townsend didn't make a love connection, and Keel said she's proudly dating around.

"Blair and I are like the best of friends now," she said.